Power Ranking Every FBS College Football Conference

Greg Wallace@gc_wallaceFeatured ColumnistSeptember 25, 2017

Power Ranking Every FBS College Football Conference

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    Alabama and Jalen Hurts are the class of college football. But how does the SEC shake out among FBS leagues?
    Alabama and Jalen Hurts are the class of college football. But how does the SEC shake out among FBS leagues?Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    It’s hard to believe but we’re already one-third of the way through the 2017 college football season.  For the third consecutive season, some old favorites (Alabama and Clemson) have established themselves as the class of college football, but the Top 10 does have some surprises, like 2016 Liberty Bowl foes Georgia and TCU. How has that affected the FBS conference power structure? Have some leagues fallen? Have others risen?

    We ranked the 10 FBS leagues in order, from worst to best, and the rankings might surprise you. Leagues were ranked on a basis of how many talented teams have emerged, and how deep they are, with factors like a team’s most impressive victory included.

10. Sun Belt Conference

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    Appalachian State has looked solid on big stages for the Sun Belt.
    Appalachian State has looked solid on big stages for the Sun Belt.Chuck Burton/Associated Press/Associated Press

    The good

    It can be hard to get a feel for a league like the Sun Belt which plays “buy” games against far more powerful foes early on, but the expected powers have risen to the top of the Sun Belt early on. Appalachian State was expected to be one of the league’s best teams, and the Mountaineers have been solid so far. They were respectable in a 31-10 loss at Georgia, belted Savannah State 54-7 and held off Texas State 20-13. Saturday, they took Wake Forest to the wire before falling 20-19.

    Troy also looks ready to challenge for a Sun Belt title. The Trojans hung with Boise State in a 24-13 loss on the blue turf, whipped Alabama State 34-7, beat New Mexico State 27-24 and beat Akron 22-17.

    Arkansas State lost 44-21 to SMU Saturday. But ASU also pushed Nebraska to the limit, blasted Arkansas Pine-Bluff and missed an opportunity to play Miami at home thanks to a Hurricane Irma-related cancellation. The Red Wolves have shown they can’t be counted out in the league race.

    The bad

    Georgia State hoped for a new start under first-year coach Shawn Elliott. But the Panthers have been outscored 73-38, losing at home to FCS foe Tennessee State and getting blown out 56-0 at Penn State. Ouch. They did manage to beat Charlotte 28-0 Saturday for their first win of 2017.

    Second-year coach Tyson Summers was already on the hot seat at Georgia Southern, and his seat is flaming after three weeks. The Eagles have been outscored 115-36. That includes a no-show 41-7 loss at Auburn, a 52-17 loss at Indiana and an ugly 22-12 loss to FCS foe New Hampshire. For a program that was pushing the likes of Georgia, Georgia Tech and N.C. State at home two years ago, that’s a humbling fall.

    Why it’s here

    Overall, only four of 12 Sun Belt teams have collectively outscored their opponents on the season thus far, which shows how far the league has to go to become respectable among FBS leagues. The Sun Belt does not have any true marquee wins and is clearly at the bottom of the FBS barrel.

9. Conference USA

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    Frank Wilson is quickly turning UT-San Antonio into a winner.
    Frank Wilson is quickly turning UT-San Antonio into a winner.Eric Gay/Associated Press

    The good

    Second-year coach Frank Wilson is quickly establishing UT-San Antonio as a team to watch while enhancing his own coaching stock. The Roadrunners lost their opener against Houston to Hurricane Harvey, but stunned Big 12 foe Baylor 17-10 and belted Southern 51-17. They also defeated Sun Belt foe Texas State 27-14 to get to 3-0. Overall, that’s very impressive and gets UTSA on the radar for a league championship.

    Marshall lost 37-20 at N.C. State, but recorded a pair of solid wins over MAC foes in Miami-Ohio and Kent State. Louisiana Tech was routed 57-21 at Mississippi State and lost a last-second decision at South Carolina, 17-16, but the Bulldogs showed they’ll be a C-USA factor by taking a 23-22 win at defending champion Western Kentucky.

    The bad

    Lane Kiffin’s Florida Atlantic tenure started rocky with big losses at Navy and Wisconsin, but the Owls bounced back with a 45-0 home win over Bethune-Cookman before falling to Buffalo 34-31. They’re 1-3, showing Kiffin has work ahead at FAU.

    UTEP is 0-4 and has already fired offensive coordinator Brent Pease, and head coach Sean Kugler is in trouble, too. The Miners have been outscored 191-51 following Saturday’s 41-14 loss at New Mexico State, and appear destined for the bottom of the C-USA standings.

    Charlotte is transitioning into the FBS, and it looks like it could be a long process. The 49ers are 0-4 after Saturday’s 28-0 shutout loss at Georgia State and also have a 35-31 loss to FCS team North Carolina A&T on their resume. They’ve been outscored 142-45 this season, which is not the way to get Charlotte residents to pay attention.

    Why it’s here

    Conference USA has shown it can be competitive with Power Five teams, as UT-San Antonio and Louisiana Tech showed. This league is largely made up of former Sun Belt teams, and while it is superior to the Sun Belt, it still lags behind the rest of the FBS, as the first four weeks of the season have shown.

8. Mid-American Conference

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    Northern Illinois surprised many with a stunning win at Nebraska.
    Northern Illinois surprised many with a stunning win at Nebraska.Nati Harnik/Associated Press

    The good

    The MAC has become known for MACtion, and is a fixture of late-season Tuesday and Wednesday nights on the ESPN family of networks. But the league plays football in September, too, and plays it pretty well.

    Northern Illinois went 5-7 last fall, but looks poised to return to MAC contention. The Huskies are 2-1 after missing a late field goal that could have tied Boston College in a 23-20 defeat, but they do have the league’s best win. They went into Lincoln and stunned Nebraska 21-17, putting significant pressure on NU coach Mike Riley.

    Under veteran coach Frank Solich, Ohio just quietly keeps rolling. The Bobcats are 3-1, and that includes a 42-30 win at Kansas, with their only loss a 44-21 defeat at Purdue. Ohio will be a bowl team again and contend for a MAC title.

    Toledo is 3-1 after Saturday’s 52-30 loss at Miami, but the Rockets have beaten Tulsa and Nevada. With Logan Woodside under center, they’re a fun team to watch and will make noise in the MAC this fall.

    The bad

    Dino Babers picked the right time to leave Bowling Green. Since Babers departed for Syracuse, the 2015 MAC champions are 4-12 under coach Mike Jinks. BGSU is 0-4 this fall and has been outscored by foes 143-57, including a 35-27 loss to FCS foe South Dakota.

    Kent State is 1-3, with its only win over FCS team Howard. Against Clemson, Marshall and Louisville, they’ve been outscored by a collective 119-6, managing a pair of field goals. That bodes poorly for any hope of MAC success.

    Why it’s here

    The MAC has a reputation for punching above its weight and beating Power Five teams, and the league has multiple Power Five wins again in 2017. While Western Michigan has taken a step back following coach P.J. Fleck’s departure to Minnesota, Northern Illinois, Ohio and Toledo have shown they should be taken seriously and will give the MAC reasons for pride this fall.

    The MAC has become known for MACtion, and is a fixture of late-season Tuesday and Wednesday nights on the ESPN family of networks. But the league plays football in September, too, and plays it pretty well.

    Northern Illinois went 5-7 last fall, but looks poised to return to MAC contention. The Huskies are 2-1 after missing a late field goal that could have tied Boston College in a 23-20 defeat, but they do have the league’s best win. They went into Lincoln and stunned Nebraska 21-17, putting significant pressure on NU coach Mike Riley.

    Under veteran coach Frank Solich, Ohio just quietly keeps rolling. The Bobcats are 3-1, and that includes a 42-30 win at Kansas, with their only loss a 44-21 defeat at Purdue. Ohio will be a bowl team again and contend for a MAC title.

    Toledo is 3-1 after Saturday’s 52-30 loss at Miami, but the Rockets have beaten Tulsa and Nevada. With Logan Woodside under center, they’re a fun team to watch and will make noise in the MAC this fall.

    The bad

    Dino Baber picked the right time to leave Bowling Green. Since Babers departed for Syracuse, the 2015 MAC champions are 4-12 under coach Mike Jinks. BGSU is 0-4 this fall and has been outscored by foes 143-57, including a 35-27 loss to FCS foe South Dakota.

    Kent State is 1-3, with its only win over FCS team Howard. Against Clemson, Marshall and Louisville, they’ve been outscored by a collective 119-6, managing a pair of field goals. That bodes poorly for any hope of MAC success.

    Why it’s here

    The MAC has a reputation for punching above its weight and beating Power Five teams, and the league has multiple Power Five wins again in 2017. While Western Michigan has taken a step back following coach P.J. Fleck’s departure to Minnesota, Northern Illinois, Ohio and Toledo have shown they should be taken seriously and will give the MAC reasons for pride this fall.

7. Mountain West Conference

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    Rashaad Penny is a special piece in San Diego State's backfield.
    Rashaad Penny is a special piece in San Diego State's backfield.Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    The good

    Rocky Long has steadily built an impressive program at San Diego State. The Aztecs look like the best team in the MWC. After Saturday’s 28-24 win at Air Force, SDSU is 4-0 and No. 19 in the new AP Top 25. That includes wins over Pac-12 teams Arizona State and Stanford. This is a legit contender for the Group of Five New Year’s Day bowl slot with one of the nation’s top tailbacks in Rashaad Penny.

    We’ll find out what Boise State is all about the next two weeks with road trips to BYU and San Diego State, but the Broncos are 2-2 after a surprising 42-23 home loss to Virginia. They also lost a wild 47-44 decision to Washington State.

    Colorado State is 2-2 with losses at No. 1 Alabama and Colorado, but the Rams showed they can be competitive with a 58-27 belting of Pac-12 foe Oregon State. They play only MWC teams the rest of the way.

    The bad

    Jay Norvell got his first head coaching job at Nevada, but it’s not going well so far. The Wolf Pack is 0-4, including a loss to FCS team Idaho State, and took a 45-7 drubbing at Washington State. They’ve been outscored 143-79 so far.

    Brent Brennan’s San Jose State tenure is also off to a very rough start. The Spartans are 1-4, with their only win coming over FCS team Cal-Poly. SJSU has been routed by Texas, South Florida, Utah and Utah State and has been outscored by a total of 226-82. Brennan has some work ahead of him.

    Why it’s here

    The Mountain West has traditionally been one of the best Group of Five conferences, and this year is no different. The MWC has one of the nation’s best Group of Five teams in San Diego State, and solid depth with the likes of Boise State, Colorado State and Wyoming. If Boise can shake some early-season issues, the league could push the American Athletic Conference in the Group of Five pecking order.

6. American Athletic Conference

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    Quinton Flowers is a special talent in South Florida's offense.
    Quinton Flowers is a special talent in South Florida's offense.Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    The good

    Charlie Strong found a solid landing spot after being dumped at Texas when Willie Taggart left South Florida for Oregon. The Bulls are 4-0 and while they have looked sluggish at times, they’re No. 18 nationally following a 43-7 whipping of Temple. They have one of the nation’s most exciting players in quarterback Quinton Flowers and are a strong New Year’s Day bowl candidate.

    Navy’s flexbone option is always confounding for opponents, and this year is no different. The Midshipmen are 3-0 after rolling Cincinnati for 569 rushing yards in a 42-32 win. They’ll be an AAC contender.

    Memphis lost Justin Fuente to Virginia Tech, and if this keeps up, the Tigers might have to worry about Mike Norvell getting poached, too. Memphis is 3-0 including a wild 48-45 win over UCLA. Meanwhile, SMU and Houston’s solid starts could mean a wild race for the American West Division title.

    The bad

    It looks like Matt Rhule picked the right time to leave Temple. The Owls are 2-2 and have been outscored 126-68 after ugly losses to South Florida and Notre Dame.

    East Carolina and Scottie Montgomery got their first win of 2017 with a 41-38 squeaker over UConn Sunday, but the Pirates have been outscored 192-92, fired their defensive coordinator and lost at home to FCS power James Madison. ECU fans have to be questioning the decision to fire Ruffin McNeill following the 2015 season, because Montgomery certainly hasn’t worked out.

    Why it’s here

    The AAC wants to be considered as one of the “Power Six” leagues, and it has solid star power at the top of its standings with South Florida, Memphis, Navy and more. The AAC doesn’t have what it takes to hang with Power Five conferences, but it can certainly pull its share of upsets and South Florida is a legit candidate for the Group of Five’s New Year’s Day slot.

5. Pac-12 Conference

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    Jake Browning is ready to lead Washington back to the College Football Playoff.
    Jake Browning is ready to lead Washington back to the College Football Playoff.David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    The good

    Last fall, Washington broke through and made the College Football Playoff in Chris Petersen’s third season. The Huskies lost significant defensive firepower to the NFL draft, but Jake Browning has no intention of letting UW slip. He’s thrown for 958 yards and nine scores in four games. The schedule gets tougher from here, but Washington is in good shape to win the Pac-12 North again.

    Southern California is a legit playoff contender, too. The Trojans have the second-longest current win streak in college football, at 13, and has been very solid thus far despite a couple scares. USC survived Texas in double overtime and bulled past a game Cal team 30-20 Saturday. Sam Darnold could be one of the nation’s top quarterbacks, but has to be more efficient with the football (seven interceptions).

    Utah is 4-0 and ranked No. 20, but its best win is over BYU. The Utes still have USC, Washington and Washington State left on their schedule.

    The Cougars are also 4-0 and have outscored teams 175-74. Are they for real? The Trojans visit for a huge showdown Friday night. Luke Falk has already thrown for 1,378 yards and 14 touchdowns.

    The bad

    Gary Andersen has to wonder why he ever left Wisconsin for Oregon State. The Beavers are 1-3 in his third season in Corvallis with ugly losses at Colorado State, Washington State and vs. Minnesota. Ouch.

    UCLA had a stirring comeback win over Texas A&M, but the Bruins are 2-2 with losses to Memphis and Stanford. Josh Rosen is an excellent quarterback, but the defense, allowing 43.2 points per game, is horrible.

    Why it’s here

    The Pac-12 has two legit College Football Playoff contenders in Southern California and Washington, and their potential meeting in the league title game would be must-see TV. Washington State and Utah are also turning heads but could fall back as their schedules get tougher, which leaves the league behind its Power Five brethren.

4. Big 12 Conference

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    Baker Mayfield is one of the nation's best overall players.
    Baker Mayfield is one of the nation's best overall players.LM Otero/Associated Press

    The good

    The Big 12 missed out on two of the last three College Football Playoffs, but Oklahoma hopes to change that this fall. The Sooners have won 14 consecutive games, the longest current win streak in college football, and have one of the nation’s best wins with a 31-16 triumph at Ohio State. Baker Mayfield has thrown for 1,329 yards with 13 touchdowns and no interceptions and is a legit Heisman Trophy contender again.

    TCU showed Saturday that it must be taken seriously as a national and Big 12 contender with a tour de force win at Oklahoma State. The Horned Frogs held OSU’s high-powered offense largely in check in a 44-31 victory. Senior quarterback Kenny Hill has been very solid, throwing for 965 yards with nine touchdowns and three interceptions.

    Don’t count the Cowboys and quarterback Mason Rudolph out of the league race, either. The Bedlam showdown with Oklahoma will be can’t-miss football.

    In addition, Will Grier looks like a perfect fit at West Virginia. The Mountaineers rebounded from a narrow season-opening loss to Virginia Tech and they’re 3-1. Grier has already thrown for 1,374 yards and 13 scores.

    The bad

    The bottom has fallen out at Baylor. The Bears have gone from the Big 12 penthouse to the basement. They gave Oklahoma a scare before falling 49-41, but new coach Matt Rhule is 0-4 with losses to Liberty and UT-San Antonio.

    Meanwhile, will David Beaty ever get it going at Kansas? The Jayhawks are 1-3 in his third season with the only win coming over Southeast Missouri and double-digit losses to MAC members Central Michigan and Ohio. That’s not promising.

    Why it’s here

    The Big 12 lacks some of the depth of its Power Five counterparts as a 10-team league, but Oklahoma, TCU and Oklahoma State all look ready to hang with many of the nation’s best teams. If the likes of Texas and Kansas State improve, this could be a special Big 12 campaign.

3. Atlantic Coast Conference

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    Kelly Bryant has kept Clemson at the forefront of college football thus far.
    Kelly Bryant has kept Clemson at the forefront of college football thus far.Richard Shiro/Associated Press

    The good

    Clemson had some offensive holes to fill following the departures of Heisman Trophy runner-up Deshaun Watson and others. But quarterback Kelly Bryant has proven a worthy successor, and a potent backfield duo of Travis Etienne and Tavien Feaster has carried the load (along with Bryant) on the ground. The Tigers have one of the nation’s nastiest defensive lines and two impressive wins  over Auburn and Louisville. They’re a legit national title contender once again.

    Virginia Tech is also 4-0 and has a talented freshman quarterback in Josh Jackson. The Hokies have a major test Saturday night when they host Clemson in Blacksburg, but they look like the class of the ACC Coastal Division with a typically solid Bud Foster defense.

    Louisville was embarrassed at home in a 47-21 loss to Clemson, but the Cardinals are 3-1 and have one of the nation’s most electric players in defending Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson.

    Want some surprises? N.C. State looks ready to break beyond the six or seven-win plateau after an impressive 27-21 win at Florida State. Meanwhile, both Duke and Wake Forest are 4-0 and knocking on the door of the Top 25. And Miami has only played two games due to Hurricane Irma, but Malik Rosier is building trust as the Hurricanes’ new starting quarterback.

    The bad

    Florida State had a very damaging season-opening loss to Alabama. They lost the game, 24-7, and lost quarterback Deondre Francois to a season-ending knee injury. The Seminoles are now 0-2 following a loss to N.C. State and out of the Top 25 for the first time since 2011. Not exactly how Jimbo Fisher envisioned this season starting.

    North Carolina has taken a clear step back, especially defensively, and the Tar Heels are 1-3 with their only win coming over Old Dominion. They’re already 0-2 in league play, too.

    Pitt is 1-3 with its only win coming over FCS foe Youngstown State. The Panthers haven’t done anything special on offense or defense, getting outscored by a total of 148-80.

    Why it’s here

    Clemson is the clear class of the ACC and one of the nation’s best teams, but with Virginia Tech, Louisville, N.C. State, Duke and Wake Forest, there’s reason to pay attention beyond the Tigers. Dabo Swinney’s bunch is the favorite to repeat as league champions, but this is a conference full of difference-makers.

2. Big Ten Conference

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    Saquon Barkley and Penn State survived Iowa Saturday night.
    Saquon Barkley and Penn State survived Iowa Saturday night.Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    The good

    Penn State was severely tested by Iowa Saturday night, and the Nittany Lions passed. Their last-ditch two-minute drive ended in the Iowa end zone with a game-winning touchdown from Trace McSorley to Juwan Johnson as time expired for a 21-19 win. Saquon Barkley continued showing why he’s the nation’s best all-around player with 211 yards rushing. The Lions look like serious Big Ten and College Football Playoff contenders again.

    Michigan hasn’t quite put it all together yet, but the Wolverines are 4-0 and haven’t really been challenged. A defense with 10 new starters looks quite stingy and ready to fuel a playoff run.

    Ohio State suffered a disappointing home loss to Oklahoma, but with senior quarterback J.T. Barrett and a number of explosive offensive playmakers, the Buckeyes will have plenty to say about the Big Ten East title race.

    Meanwhile, Wisconsin looks like the clear class of the Big Ten West. The Badgers have allowed 30 points in three wins and don’t face a likely Top 25 team until Michigan visits on Nov. 18. That should keep them around the Top 10 and in the playoff conversation.

    The bad

    With the firing of athletic director Shawn Eichorst, the heat is building under Mike Riley’s seat at Nebraska. The Huskers are 2-2 with a home loss to Northern Illinois, which is inexcusable for a program of NU’s caliber.

    Rutgers brought the New York media market to the Big Ten, but what else? The Scarlet Knights look out of their depth in the Big Ten East. They’re 1-3 and life doesn’t get much easier as Ohio State visits this week.

    Why it’s here

    The Big Ten is very top-heavy, but with Michigan, Penn State and Ohio State, the Big Ten East is one of college football’s best divisions. Wisconsin is a physical, powerful team in the Big Ten West, and Iowa showed Saturday night that the Badgers aren’t the only quality West program. The league is not as deep top-to-bottom as the SEC, but it can certainly hold its own on a national stage.

1. Southeastern Conference

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    Nick Saban and Alabama have plenty to be happy about in the season's first month.
    Nick Saban and Alabama have plenty to be happy about in the season's first month.Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    The good

    Alabama came within one play of back-to-back national titles, and the Crimson Tide is ready for another run. Nick Saban has curated another dominating defense, and Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris form an excellent two-headed monster in the backfield. The Tide sent a message to the rest of the SEC with a dominant 59-0 blowout of a previously unbeaten Vanderbilt team: we’re not going anywhere.

    Meanwhile, Saban’s former protégé, Kirby Smart, might be turning the corner in Athens. The Bulldogs are 4-0 and brought the pain to fellow unbeaten Mississippi State in a 31-3 beating. Who needs Jacob Eason anyway? Jake Fromm has been very good and senior tailback Nick Chubb has 371 yards and six touchdowns on the ground.

    Auburn hasn’t been perfect, especially on offense, but the Tigers are 3-1 with the only loss a 14-6 defeat at No. 2 Clemson. Maybe Gus Malzahn is finding some stability on the Plains.

    The bad

    Missouri’s consecutive SEC East titles under Gary Pinkel look like a distant memory. The Tigers are 1-3 and have been outscored 160-102. Consecutive home losses to Purdue and Auburn by a combined 86-17 score should have second-year coach Barry Odom feeling the heat.

    Tennessee is 3-1, but followed a final-play loss to Florida with a listless 17-13 win over a bad UMass program. The Volunteers don’t look ready to make a run for an SEC East title with Georgia up next.

    Arkansas is 1-2 and fans have to be wondering if Bret Bielema is the right fit. A 50-43 overtime loss to Texas A&M certainly didn’t help his favorability rating with Razorbacks faithful.

    Why it’s here

    It’s easy to potentially dismiss the SEC as Alabama and the “other 13 guys.” But thus far, the league has shown depth beyond the Crimson Tide. The league has six teams in this week’s Associated Press Top 25, most of any conference. With Auburn and Mississippi State in the West and Georgia in the East, it’s entirely possible that we could have some very meaningful and memorable games over the next two months.